Why your students don't do the readings

18 April 2024
It's a common complaint among teachers, but new research suggests a different approach to readings can significantly improve student engagement.
Dr Sandris Zeivots

Dr Sandris Zeivots

Most higher education students do not engage with course readings, but new research suggests that can be fixed by rethinking how and why they are assigned.

Published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education, the research proposes six aspects to consider when seeking meaningful student engagement with readings: usefulness, enjoyment, quantity, access, intent and integration with the course.

Dr Sandris Zeivots said the research was inspired by his work in course co-design at the University of Sydney Business School.

Existing research suggests 70 to 80 percent of students do not engage with course readings. That’s for a whole host of reasons, from time constraints and language barriers to a lack of understanding of the purpose of readings,” Dr Zeivots said.

“Anecdotally, lecturers know most students don’t comply with the system, but we act as though the fault is with the students. This research started by flipping that assumption and asking: what are we trying to achieve with readings? And, how can we better design them so that students will want to engage?”

Dr Zeivots worked with International Business course coordinator Professor Vikas Kumar to redesign the readings in the popular Master of Commerce subject at the Business School.

It’s universally acknowledged that most students don’t do the readings. We can give up, or we can do something different.
Professor Vikas Kumar

After examining the existing literature and developing their framework, Dr Zeivots and his co-author Ms Courtney Shalavin worked with Professor Kumar, tutors and students over the course of three consecutive semesters – a process that led to half the readings being changed.

They introduced one to two ‘must-read’ pages for each reading that contained the key points, and an unmarked online discussion question to guide students’ approach to each reading and to engage their critical thinking.

Surveys revealed just over half (54 percent) of students reported reading the must-read pages, and engagement with readings increased slightly over the semester, rather than decreased with student fatigue.

Professor Kumar said the discussion questions allowed tutors to engage students on the concepts raised by the readings without the pressure of a grade.

“Involving students in the co-design process produced invaluable feedback. For example, we learned students wanted to learn more about fintech, so we introduced more fintech case studies that aligned with our core teaching concepts.”


This research was conducted as part of the Connected Learning at Scale project at the University of Sydney Business School. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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